By Karin W. Sarratt, SPHR, Vice President of Talent Management and Chief Diversity Officer, WellPoint, Inc.
In July 2012, my family and I returned from an expatriate assignment in Brussels, Belgium. Looking back, this experience proved to be a platform for growth and development for my entire family.
Although we had successfully completed a family assessment to determine our “assignment readiness and adaptability,”
we still found ourselves outside of our comfort zone once in Brussels. The most immediate gap that surfaced was our inability to speak the local language—we quickly learned that things do get lost in translation! In this rapidly changing, global environment, the differences in linguistics and cultural backgrounds require even greater focus on effective communications.
Arriving at the Brussels airport, I recall feeling out of place, vulnerable, and disadvantaged because I couldn’t speak French. I expected that someone would be waiting to welcome us, help us with the luggage and transportation, and assist in getting us settled in our temporary housing. My expectation was, however, misguided and it was incumbent upon us to figure it out. But this experience reinforced the need for us to remain flexible, patient, open-minded, and to keep a sense of humor.
The assignment was designed to enhance my global business acumen. My responsibilities spanned across Europe, the Middle East, and Africa and the complexity of the assignment was magnified by the scope of the operations in Russia. I worked with a culturally diverse leadership tea
m, which included representation from Belgium, Chile, France, Ireland, Germany, Russia, and the United States. Every interaction with my colleagues reinforced the need for respectful, cross-cultural communications.
Borrowing from Steven Covey’s Habit Five, “seeking first to understand then to be understood,” served me well in my relationship building and collaborations. As a result, I showed up ready to listen and gain deeper levels of understanding, versus jumping right to problem solving. This typically led to more questions, more discussions, and followup meetings, but in the end we rarely had to “undo” decisions.
Overall, the collective experiences abroad, taught me the importance of:
• Embracing new ideas and allowing yourself to be influenced by others
• Tackling biases head on, those of others and my own as well
• Admitting when you don’t understand a cultural norm but remaining open to learn
• Allowing others to ask questions without feeling judged
• Being comfortable with difficult discussions, all aimed at better outcomes
Most importantly, the friendships that my family and I developed with people from around the world have opened our minds and hearts in a way that will last a lifetime. Now that we’re back in the United States, these critical lessons about effectively communicating are still relevant. Believe it or not, things still get lost in translation here too!